State divvies election dollars

Statewide political candidates collect $6.5-million total in matching funds for their campaigns. And more's coming.

Published July 29, 2006

TALLAHASSEE - Think you didn't donate to a campaign this election year? Think again.

Statewide candidates collected on Friday the first of several checks totaling a whopping 6.5-million taxpayer dollars for their campaigns, according to the Florida Division of Elections.

And there's more to come.

Republicans have historically derided public financing, and Gov. Jeb Bush often has called it "welfare for politicians."

Yet state law allows candidates to qualify for publicly financed matching dollars for every dollar they collect from Floridians who contribute less than $250. By accepting this public money, candidates for governor agree not to spend more than $20-million total, and those running for Cabinet offices must keep their totals under $10-million.

"In the past, politicians have criticized such public financing as taxpayers subsidizing politicians, and that's exactly what we have now," said Ben Wilcox, executive director of Common Cause Florida, a nonprofit that advocates election reform.

At the top of the list was Republican candidate for governor Charlie Crist, currently the attorney general, who received $1.8-million in matching funds, or about as much as he raised over the past three months.

"Ordinarily I wouldn't embrace it, but I'm in a position where I don't want to unilaterally disarm," Crist said Friday. "I want to be able to communicate with the voters at every opportunity."

Republican Tom Gallagher, currently the state's chief financial officer, came in second with $1.3-million. His campaign said they felt obliged to take public financing despite philosophical doubts.

"Accepting public financing was not our preference, but once Charlie Crist decided to accept public financing, we had no choice strategically but to accept public financing as well," said Gallagher spokesman Albert Martinez.

The Democrats got about half as much, with Rep. Jim Davis of Tampa raking in $931,919 and state Sen. Rod Smith of Alachua getting $822,877.

All the gubernatorial campaigns gave guarded answers about how they planned to use the money, saying it would be used as state law allows, which could be anything from airing television commercials to paying campaign staffers.

In other races, Republican candidate for chief financial officer Randy Johnson collected $204,028. Another Republican seeking the same office, Tom Lee, got $483,726. Democrat Alex Sink got $132,920.

Incumbent Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson collected $314,269. His Democratic challenger, Eric Copeland, currently has too much of his own money in his campaign to qualify for funds. He said he'll qualify the next go-round.

In the attorney general race, Republican candidate Bill McCollum collected $506,733 in public financing. Democratic candidate Skip Campbell didn't get any money, but that was because of a paperwork glitch, said his campaign manager, Jeff Garcia. Campbell, the richest candidate running for office, is expected to collect about $300,000 in the next few weeks.

A new Democratic challenger for attorney general, Merrilee Ehrlich, who just recently filed paperwork to run in that race, didn't qualify for funds.